Have Steam, Will Travel

Engineers, tinkerers, and DIY dreamers prepare for the alt-fuels road rally known as Escape from Berkeley.

A garden hose hooked to a pressure washer drips into a rivulet of oily water that’s making its way to the street. At Berkeley’s Shipyard Labs, Mike Thielvoldt is peering over the shoulders of Shannon O’Hare and Bill Smythe as they clean a contraption that looks like a cross between an 1800s buggy and a Victorian steam car. In fact, that’s exactly what it is: O’Hare and a team of fellow engineers and tinkerers have lovingly built the vehicle they call Kristie’s Flyer to run on steam.

In two and a half weeks, Thielvoldt, O’Hare, and Smyth will compete in Escape from Berkeley, an interstate road rally for vehicles burning alternative fuels — anything but fossil fuel. But right now, on Saturday September 23, they’re partners in crime, discussing the innards of a steam engine.

The Shipyard is Willy Wonka’s factory with motor oil and rust instead of chocolate and sugar. On a concrete- and asphalt-covered yard about the size of two standard Berkeley lots, a metal industrial building is obscured by a three-sided square of shipping containers. On top and in front of these containers, each of which serves as a workshop for someone, every imaginable industrial material is stored in piles and drifts: pipes and tubes, chains, ladders, dollies and hoists, lumber, scrap metal, and old windows. They’re joined by dolls, masks, toys, an 1890s bicycle, an antique coal heater, and a mirrored disco ball. And then there are the sculptures, most of them welded from scrap iron. They rise up in a jumble on top of the container that fronts the street: a scrap metal skeleton in chains, a spider, and a spinning weathervane of eyeballs looming over Murray Street like the guardians of Hades.

Inside the main building are the types of heavy and dangerous tools you need to shape such rough and tough objects. Packed into the yard are more of the results: a green metal vehicle about eight feet high and twelve feet long that you might think was a pickle-mobile if it weren’t for the circular appendages on top. There’s definitely a Shipyard Look: brawny, raw, playful, cartoonish, and rugged.

Established in 2001, when Jim Mason plopped some metal shipping containers in a vacant lot, the Shipyard houses studios and workshops for Burning Man artists and, increasingly, people fooling around with alternative fuels. Mason wants the Shipyard to help spearhead a shift away from making large-scale sculptures for Burning Man. Instead, why not apply all that ingenuity and creativity to solving a huge environmental problem?

In a manifesto on the Shipyard web site, Mason wrote, “I think energy is going to become, or at least has the potential to become, a creative idiom of pleasurable hacking, creativity and self-expression.”

Escape from Berkeley — full name, Escape from Berkeley (by any non-petroleum means necessary) is his most ambitious demonstration of that idiom to date.

Steam Bohemians

The Neverwas Haul crew is an exception to the Shipyard aesthetic. O’Hare, Kimric Smythe, Peter Luka, and Matt Snyder like to play with Victorian imagery, and they also like Victorian technology.

From the back, Kristie’s Flyer looks much the same as it did a hundred years ago: an antique wooden carriage with a brass oil lantern hanging from the rear. From the front, it looks like a cross between a motorcycle and a child’s steam train. There’s a single metal-spoked wheel, an engine bristling with gauges and valves, and a smokestack made out of black pipe topped off with a brass spittoon.

The steam-powered carriage will burn vegetable oil to boil water. As the water turns to steam, it expands and creates pressure. The pressure feeds into a piston steam engine, driving the piston up and down. The piston drives a flywheel mounted on one side. The flywheel stores energy and also turns the front wheel via a direct-drive chain. Kimric and the crew built the steam engine from scrounged parts, using schematics and directions from their library of hundreds of books found in flea markets and thrift stores.

The crew bought the carriage at an antique store, then O’Hare modified the body, making it wider, stronger, and prettier. Its new, four-foot diameter wooden wheels, with a thin, solid rubber tire, were made for the Amish, a religious group that doesn’t use motors or electricity. When asked how far the vehicle can travel, O’Hare responded, “It’s never exactly ‘traveled.'” Kristie’s Flyer, named after the love of Kimric’s life who died unexpectedly, has been trucked to fairs and events, but has covered only a couple of miles under its own power.

Kimric’s father, Bill, is cleaning engine oil off the machinery parts. “Everything has to be ornate,” he said. Bill is not an official part of the race team, but he tends to show up with miscellaneous loot he’s scrounged from various places, including his yard. Today, he’s brought a pile of brass gewgaws bought cheap at the thrift store in Scotts Valley, where he lives. Before long, the base of a candle holder becomes a decorative top for a steam tube.

His son is tinkering with the steam engine. “I’m just fucking panicked about getting this done,” Kimric says as he methodically tightens a pipe. When asked what still needs to be accomplished, he begins to steam himself. “Talking about what needs to be done would just add to the stress level. I do one thing and then remember the next thing I have to do. I’m designing it as I go.”

Kimric is a tall man with silver hair and Nordic eyes. He repairs accordions for a living, and learned his way around fireworks by rigging the Burning Man sculpture, beginning in the early days when the party first moved to the desert. He’s known for dangerously exciting performances, like the time he donned a fire-retardant suit covered with fireworks and became a walking pinwheel display.

He and O’Hare, both denizens of Oakland, got together when Kimric needed a carpenter for a wooden clock tower he and the rest of the crew were building for Burning Man 2005. O’Hare, who has traveled the country building castles for Renaissance Faires, worked with a company that did casino environments, and now works as a carpenter and landscaper, building things like intricate doors and gates. The next year, they built the Neverwas Haul, a fantasy vehicle for Burning Man. The three-story Victorian house on a travel trailer base is clad in gingerbread, with a turret, a library, and lace curtains blowing out of the sash windows.

Their admiration for 1900s-era steam engines and ornate detail puts these guys in the category of steampunk, a science fiction and cultural genre that extrapolates from the Victorian era. “I always loved the aesthetics of the Victorian inventions, especially the ones that didn’t exist, like Jules Verne’s submarines and flying machines,” O’Hare said. But he eschews the steampunk moniker. “I consider myself a steam bohemian,” he said. “I’m more anarchistic, classier, and more artistically inclined.” He looks like a Victorian mad scientist, with tufts of curly hair escaping from under his baseball cap, and a billy-goat beard showing gray.

How can Kristie’s Flyer make it over Tioga Pass? “That’s very impractical,” O’Hare said. “I would consider it impossible, actually.” The Neverwas Haul crew expects the steam carriage to cover most of the miles on its trailer. But they’ll show up for the beginning and end of each day, and make all the checkpoints.

This week’s goal is to fabricate the vegetable oil burner, so that they can test it. “But testing has never stopped us before,” O’Hare said.

Road Rules

The pressure is on because, eighteen days from now, Kristie’s Flyer and nine or ten other mind-alteringly altered vehicles will leave for a grueling three-day road rally that will take them over the high mountain passes of Yosemite and through Death Valley to Las Vegas. The race is modeled after the DARPA Grand Challenge and the Cannonball Run. Billed as a “no-holds-barred battle of engineering prowess and creative excess,” it will test these vehicles to the max.

Explained race coordinator Jake Haskell, “You can’t buy or bring any fuel with you, you have to go out and scavenge, which forces interaction between the community at large and the teams. That interaction will generate, we hope, a lot of interest, but also educate the public. There are all these alternative energy tours that travel all over the country, but they’re on par with preaching, and I think people are getting desensitized to that approach. The race is a tangible, exciting way people can get involved and even participate by donating fuel.”

The rules are simple and diabolical: Any kind of fuel or motive power that’s not petroleum-based is allowed, including solar and simple human pedal power. Contestants must start the race with no more than a gallon of their chosen fuel (including gasoline to get a gasified engine started) or 10 kilowatt hours’ worth of their chosen energy on board. And they can’t buy more along the road; they’ll have to scavenge or beg for their chosen fuel.

Escape from Berkeley is not exactly a race. Instead, it’s a timed road rally, where there’s a proper amount of time to get between checkpoints. In theory, the challenge is to be the vehicle that matches those times most closely. In practice, just finishing the three two-hundred-mile segments will be a challenge.

The first segment goes north on San Pablo all the way to the town of San Pablo, and then heads east on Highway 4. But things get dicey on Tioga Pass Road, a 99-mile haul that takes the racers up over Yosemite. And the final leg takes them through Death Valley, where daytime temperatures may be more than 100 degrees.

Veggie Volvo

Jake Waters is not sweating it at all. Leaning back against the side of an octahedron shelter made of scrap plywood and fiberglass, he has all the time in the world. And why not? He’s been driving around in the vehicle he entered as “Generic Ignorable Veggie Entry — Underestimate, Please” for four years.

This is his second veggie-oil modification. The engine of the first one, a 1983 Volvo he got for $300, was too shot, but it did let him do some experimentation. He got the 1984 Volvo wagon in 2004, and he’s been driving it — when he drives — ever since. He doesn’t do preventive maintenance; when something breaks, he fixes it. He also has a log book predating the first Volvo in which he’s documented every breakdown, every repair, every filter change — and every crazy thing one of his passengers did.

“It’s a given I’m going to win the race,” he said. “It’s easy. I go on road trips all the time. Fueling my car and getting where I need to go in a short amount of time is something I do on a low amount of sleep regularly.”

Waters lives in an extremely rundown house in North Oakland. In the backyard, a few ripped-up, busted-out armchairs sit catercorner to a metal truck toolbox decorated with spray paint. An upright bare mattress behind it acts as a garden wall. Everything seems tossed around and run into the dirt in a rather cozy way, as though the place was inhabited by a litter of puppies.

He arrived in Berkeley in 2003, after a couple of years studying engineering and alternative fuels at the University of Texas in Austin. But he saw the program as “learning to be a little cog in a big machine, and I wasn’t interested in that. I believe in engineering as something that you do.”

Waters is dressed in grimy beige corduroy overalls and a worn striped T-shirt with a homemade screen print. The toe of one shoe flaps loose. He has a crown of bleached-blond dreadlocks above close-cropped black hair. He doesn’t have a job, but he makes some money by doing electronics projects. He scrounges food from supermarket Dumpsters, where you can find slightly bruised fruit or a whole carton of eggs with one slightly cracked.

He entered the race, he said, not to demonstrate the viability of vegetable oil as a fuel. After all, Rudolf Diesel did that in 1901, when he invented the diesel engine to run on peanut oil. “I’m in the race so that when people ask me, ‘Wow, you really think that vegetable oil is a solution to the world’s energy problems?’ I can go, ‘Actually, it’s not. If we were to convert all of the arable land in the world to the production of biofuels, we’d be able to knock off 12 percent of our petroleum usage — but we wouldn’t have any food.'”

He doesn’t think any alternative fuels are the answer to global warming. Instead, he’d like everyone to keep running their refrigerators and lights, but walk, ride bikes, or take public transportation to get around.

Therefore, driving the Volvo makes him something of a hypocrite, he admitted. “The vehicle gets me around and lets me do the good things I want to do,” he says. “Powering it off veggie oil means I don’t have to spend money to fuel it. If I were spending money, I’d be working for somebody who makes even more money, and that’s part of the system I oppose.”

Hot Rodders

The alt-fuel guys can be seen as descendants of hot rodders and motorcycle choppers, men who push their skills and desires beyond fixing and maintenance to creativity that’s as much about function as form. They are also in the direct lineage of the New Alchemists, the 1970s group that aimed to use science to bring people into partnership with nature; the back-to-the-land movement that saw people building geodesic domes in the desert out of sheet metal from abandoned cars; and the Exploratorium’s science-is-fun workshops and exhibits.

The Internet has reinvigorated this generation of hands-on dreamers and provided an exquisite level of technological sophistication. As Waters said, “You don’t need an engineering degree. You can go on Google and learn things you used to have to go to school for eight years to learn how to do. The tools are cheaper and more fun, and there are better communications to let you find people to help you with tricky things.”

In the guts of those hulking rusty sculptures at the Shipyard are hydraulics, robotics, sensors, and other handy mechanisms that used to be available only to highly paid Disney Imagineers. These do-it-yourself engineers post videos and how-to information on YouTube or Blip.tv and Instructables.com. Feel bad that you have to ask a thirteen-year-old how to download music to your phone? Listen to “tanntraad’s” introduction to an Instructables video. “I made my first animatronic hand when I was about ten years old, using stuff I found around the house. Now I want to share with you how to easily make your own at home.”

There’s also Make: magazine and its companion web site (MakeZine.com), a three-year-old endeavor headed by Wired alum Mark Frauenfelder, dedicated to DIY technology. In its pages, you can find out how to make a laser harp, a wind turbine — and hundreds of things you’ve probably never thought of. The Make: folks have a simple and elegant name for these engineer-it-yourselfers: Makers. For the past two years, they’ve showcased people’s work at Maker Faires held in the Bay Area and Austin, as well as at smaller events.

Burning Chips

As a kid, when Mike Thielvoldt asked his dad what a camshaft was, his father took apart an engine to show him.

Today, he could be playing the lead in Oklahoma! With his rockabilly cowboy hat, freckles, and big smile, the Berkeley resident looks as corn-fed as a prize bull.

The 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon that he’ll drive in the rally is Thielvoldt’s second alt-fuel vehicle. The first was a Burning Man project called Lepidodgera, a 37-foot-tall steel butterfly with a wingspan of 57 feet. The butterfly, wings flapping via hydraulics, sat on the chassis of a Dodge van. Thielvoldt was roped into that project by some friends in school who wanted to build an art car. “That didn’t sell me,” Thielvoldt said. “What sold me was, they were going to put a gasifier on it.” He studied gasification while getting his master’s in mechanical engineering at Stanford.

He started by designing the wings, then they needed engineering to get the wings to work, then they needed a frame. He said, “I sold them all on an engineering project and then became the engineer by default.”

Gasification is one of the hot topics in alt fuels. It’s a process that converts any carbon-based material into fuel by heating it past 700 degrees while controlling the amount of oxygen. The process was developed in the 19th century as a way to provide municipal gas for cooking and lighting, and it was used in World War II to power vehicles. Most of today’s power plants gasify coal or petroleum to generate electricity.

Your basic downdraft gasifier has four zones. On top is the bunker zone, where the fuel sits warming up. Below that is the pyrolysis zone, a low-oxygen chamber where fire begins to break down the fuel into gases, liquids, and solid ash. In the next zone, air is mixed with the gases, making the mixture hotter and burning off more solids. Finally, the hot gases and glowing charcoal remnants of the fuel are reduced to combustible gases. These gases are what actually fire the engine of the gasified vehicle.

But this process is far from straightforward. For example, every kind of fuel, known as biomass, contains a different amount of volatile matter. A light and fluffy material burns differently than a denser substance. Some produce tar when they’re burned, which can gunk things up. Even two different batches of pine chips may have wildly varying moisture content. All this makes running a gasifier more art than science.

What really gets today’s alt-fuel geeks going is that you can gasify almost anything: wood chips, cigarette butts, weeds. Thielvoldt plans to burn the wood chips that road and forestry crews leave in piles beside the highways.

He bought the Vanagon for a road trip last summer. Despite its age, it only has around 130,000 miles on it, and looks gently used. It’s a perfect vehicle to modify because the rear engine is accessible from the inside of the van, allowing him to watch the combustion and tweak the gasifier en route. He can simply plumb his two-chambered, downdraft gasifier into the carburetor. He’ll start the car with a bit of gas (each entry is allowed about a gallon of gas a day), then switch it to the gasifier.

This week, he’s been experimenting with finding a balance between air and the wood chips he’ll use as fuel. The wood chips are partly burned in the upper chamber, releasing gas that’s full of tar and other particulates. Then, the charcoal and gas fall into the lower chamber, where air is introduced and more combustion takes place, burning off the tar. That second-stage combustion uses the charcoal generated in the first chamber. So Thielvoldt had to figure out how much fuel and air the chamber needed to maintain the right balance. If the charcoal burns too fast, combustion will slow down or stop. If it burns too slowly, it will build up in the bottom of the chamber, clogging the system.

Thanks to the can and propane torch he used to model the gasifier in his Berkeley basement, he thinks he can easily control the mix. The other wild card is picking up wood chips along the road. He’s counting on finding piles of them left on the side of the highways by road crews, but it takes about five times the volume of wood to equal one gallon of gas.

Thielvoldt is in the race for a couple of reasons. The deadline keeps him going on a project he wanted to do anyway. He also hopes it will get across to people that cars don’t need to run on gasoline, they’re more flexible than that.

The gasifier is 100-year-old technology, he pointed out. “When a company brings out their ethanol vehicle, it’s nothing special. We need to think more broadly about the challenges that are facing us. These challenges are solvable, and in many cased, they’re already solved.”

With his freshly minted Stanford master’s degree, Thielvoldt is bouncing around the juicy place where art meets engineering. After Escape from Berkeley, he has a gig helping to design and build an art-related project for which he’ll use his fluid flow electronics and mechanical design skills. But that’s later.

“I’m worried about whether I’m going to get the reliability to be competitive,” Thielvoldt said. “Sure, I will move at the starting line and conceivably go somewhere. But I need to run it full throttle for a half hour to get through the passes in Yosemite. That’ll be extremely intense for the system I’m building. If I get to Martinez, I’ll be happy. If I finish the race, I’ll be ecstatic. If I win, I’ll be shocked.”

Easy Riders

The Blue Flame Club is under the gun. For the past two nights, they’ve tried and failed to start the engine of the 1972 BMW R75 motorcycle they’re modifying. “There are little engineering issues like leaks in the system and a weak blower,” said Ed Cissel.

The Blue Flame Club, composed of Cissel, Alex Greaney, Vajra Granelli, George Lipp, Zack Whitaker, David Buckley, and Drew Baggs, works in a drafty aluminum building on Pier 70, one of the last wild places left in San Francisco. The three-bay industrial building they’re in opens out into a huge empty concrete yard; at the far east end, two giant derelict cranes loom over abandoned brick warehouses.

Cissel, who is director of strategy for Yojimbo Protection Services, brought home an Escape from Berkeley flier and showed it to Greaney, his roommate in North Oakland. They recruited the rest of the team from friends and connections — and Buckley happened to have just the bike they needed.

They’re modifying the BMW to run on gasified wood chips, with an extra boost for the hills from alcohol, which they’ll distill on the run from scavenged, sugar-based drinks and fast-acting yeast.

“The idea is to use the exhaust feed and run it though a heat exchanger that will allow us to take the fermented sugars and distill them,” said Cissel, a mensch with a Bodhisattva smile. “We’re using a rapid yeast that will give us about a quarter gallon of ethanol from about three gallons of starting material.”

All this equipment — plus an on-board wood chipper — will travel in a specially fabricated sidecar. The construction is ad hoc. Team members show up when they can, and do whatever makes sense at that time.

The materials are just as random. Gases from the wood chips will pass through a filter made from a paint can. The wood chipper was fabricated using a pressure cooker as the base, with engine blades inside turned by a wheelchair motor. “Hopefully, it won’t be running between someone’s legs on the sidecar,” Cissel said. “But it might be.”

Greaney, a long, quiet Englishman, works as a nanoscientist at UC Berkeley, but he’s also a whiz at macro stuff like welding and brazing. The cyclone he put together to aerate the gases is almost a work of art.

All of his team shared a childhood fascination with the Blue Flame, the rocket-powered vehicle that achieved a land speed record in 1970. His interest switched to electric vehicles and, in 1992, he moved from Florida to the Bay Area to work in the industry — and then watched automotive interests kill GM’s EV1 and a whole generation of electric vehicles. He became disenchanted with that business, but remained in love with the idea of sustainable energy. He built some electric scooters, maintained his motorcycle, and waited for the next interesting technical challenge.

Creating a wood-eating motorcycle was just the kind of test he loves. “It’s about 30 percent planned, and the rest design as you go,” Cissel said. They use a dry-erase board to make quick sketches and to-do lists. “We’ve built a really neat team, and we’re already looking to see what we’re going to do next.”

Telling a New Energy Story

The impulse to tweak the innards of a car to run on weeds reflects in part the brain’s delight in impossible — or at least improbable — engineering challenges. But it’s informed by a radical vision of a world humming along happily without oil, pollution, or environmental devastation.

Thielvoldt thinks that true innovation in alternative fuels is being suppressed by the same big oil companies who fund research, such as BP’s Energy Biosciences Institute at UC, or Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project, funded by ExxonMobile, GE, Schlumberger, and Toyota. And he’s not alone. These gearheads want to shake things up by thrusting the bent-up rattling noses of their rattrap conveyances into the public mind — by whatever means necessary.

And what’s better than a parade? Specifically, a growling lurching smoking string of vehicles pulling away from the Shipyard and down the road like an auto industry nightmare.

Said Thielvoldt, “Private builders and entrepreneurs have identified a huge vacuum in the amount of ingenuity that’s actually being brought into the marketplace. So we’re taking the first steps to get some better ideas on the road.”

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